I’ve met a lot of people over the years and as a result have a very diverse group of friends. Many of them not surprisingly are Pagans, but I also know a lot of Christians. Some of those Christian friends are progressive followers of Jesus, and we find that a lot of our political and social philosophies are very much in sync. But I also know a lot of Christians on the other side of the aisle, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, hard-core Catholics, and Tea Party Christians; people who most likely think I’m destined for their hell, yet find me amusing for whatever reason.
While I don’t talk about religion with my Evangelical friends very often I do come across their comments about it on Facebook and during random conversations. Today one of those friends wrote that “it’s a blessing and a reward to suffer in this life because it draws us closer to God.” There are many things that bring me closer to my gods: wine, orgasm, ritual, meditation, joy, celebration, and rock and roll spring instantly to mind, but not ever suffering. In times of strife or trouble I have sought out my gods for comfort, but I’ve never thought that my cat dying or being broke was some sort of cosmic reward.
I just can’t grasp the idea of an omnipresent god sending horrible things my way as a gift. Bad things happen because people are sometimes assholes. Bad things happen because there is free will. Bad things happen sometimes due to random chance. I’m no deist, I don’t think the gods created the world and then left us to our own devices, but I also don’t believe that they are dictating every event in our lives. I feel as if Dionysus and Ariadne are paying attention to my life, and might sometimes even intervene in it, but I don’t think they are purposefully setting up distressing moments as a form of blessing.
Times of trouble certainly do test us, and they do sometimes make us stronger, but that doesn’t make me look upon them as divinely orchestrated. I’m of the opinion that the gods help us through those moments, but they don’t create them. We’ve also been given the tools (and many of us the circumstances) to create better situations for ourselves. Many of the more mundane challenges I’ve experienced in my life are the result of my own poor choices, not a deity putting me through the cosmic-wringer. (Of course a god could choose to torment me or anyone else if they wanted to, so it’s best to stay on their good side.)
As a polytheist I believe that the powers of the gods are limited. There is a natural order to things, and as powerful as deity is, I don’t think it can overturn that order. Pan has a great deal of sway in this world, but he can’t turn back time or bring the dead back to life. People get cancer because our world is polluted and the body is not meant to last forever. Sickness is caused by microbes and viruses, it’s not a reward or a test from a spiteful god, it’s a part of how the world works.
My gods have suffered for the sake of myth. We see archetypal forces at play in cosmologies such as the Oak King/Holly King, but there the suffering is a metaphor for a higher truth; for new things to live old things have to die. There’s not a “literal” Oak King who kills his brother once a year for my sake. There’s simply a natural earthly cycle that we’ve captured in story form. That particular story speaks to (some of) us, but I don’t expect the Holly King to walk up to me holding his dismembered head under his arm saying “I have suffered for you.”
People close to the gods I honor have had horrible things happen to them in myth, but again I don’t look at those instances as literal occurrences. Stories of Dionysus driving individuals into madness serves a reminder that denying the ecstasy of the spirit (experienced through gods such as Dionysus) has serious consequences. Imagine a life without sex, joy, pleasure, story, and song; that would certainly drive me mad!
My relationship with the gods has always brought me joy. When I feel them near me I’m filled with happiness, fear*, and awe. Their presence is never negative nor do they demand some sort of strange bowing and scraping for the “suffering” they’ve undertaken on my behalf. People are free to have whatever sort of arrangements they want with deity and to interpret that relationship however they see it, but I’m certainly glad that my gods aren’t sadists and I’m not a masochist**.
*I love my wife dearly, but I fear her too. I fear because I often feel like I’m not living up to the trust that they (or her) have put in me. Besides, they are also gods, and I’m rather sure they are a little more powerful than me.
**That being said a little consensual BDSM never hurt anyone, unless they wanted it to.